Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Monday, December 3, 2007

Collective Intelligence, the Joy of Networking and how "The Random Walk" leads to

Please excuse the long-winded title; I just finished reading Voltaire's "Candide" twice for the third time (!) the -- the first time was in French Class at Dobbs Ferry High School as an independent study for our unsung hero history teacher, Jerry Hafner, who believed that self-directed study was more effective than state framework based curricula, and the second and third time was over the past few months doing a simultaneous reading in French and Arabic, in a dual language book I found in an obscure Cairo bookstore called "Madboulis" on Talat Harb street. And the thing about long-winded titles is that they were the norm during the 18th century, and I have fallen in love with the amount of information about a chapter they packed in.

My mentor at UCLA, Professor Susanna Hecht, was passionate about travelogues and literature from the age of discovery and enlightenment, and gave us the opportunity for a lot of self-directed study, particularly of utopian literature and the works of explorers -- the writings of everyone from Campanella ("City of the Sun" ) and Bacon ("A New Atlantis") to Defoe ("Robinson Crusoe", which I also recently read in Arabic in a recently re-published bi-lingual book from Madboulis, proving it still has international appeal) and Alexander von Humboldt, and her own personal favorite, Euclides da Cunha, whose 19th century prose about the lost edens of Amazonia she has recently translated in her latest book.

Such literary voyages into the minds and spaces occupied by great ideas of social and landscape tranformation in an age of wonder have an impact on the student, and ci could not remain unaffected. So forgive me if it colors my writing style!

What is more, in this new age of discovery and enlightenment, opened up by the world wide web, the dense writitng style of our forebears, who were true explorers, not armchair explorers,mind you, and wrote centuries before the advent o the tehcnologies that now make us all "windows explorers", is incredibly useful, and should make a comeback.

It is useful for us "windows explorers" because of the historically recent evolution of the AI hypo-organisms called "web-bots" or "search-bots" who spend their time indefatigably hunting and gathering in hyperspace. They are the true "windows explorers". The web bots slavishly devoted to their "Googling" search engine using masters, are connection freaks. In their digital DNA is a program that compels them to make associations and relentlessly look for patterns of recognition in the vast sea of information that would overload the human mind. The web-bots in Google are the virtual Zabaleen of the internet, scouring through the garbage and flotsam and jetsam of hundreds of millions of loquacious human beings and mining that mountain for useful combinations of materials.

So in my mind the web bots in the serach engines of today are in some ways the equivalents of the humble servants of the great explorers of yesteryear. They are the natives of cyberspace, helping the 21st century's neuromantic equivalents of Alexander von Humboldt and Bonpland. They are the servants you never read about, those hardy souls who led the way through caves and mountain passes and river fords, who carried and preserved all the specimens of plants and animals and human bones on tortuous jungle paths, who identified species new to European minds and translated encounters with "savages" into friendly cross-cultural conversations.

Given their programmed desire to help us make our discoveries, I try now to write deliberately for THEM. I try to write in a style that might alienate many readers grown up in an era of short "sound-bites" and watered-down, sensationalized headlines, yes. But I am doing it with a purpose.

I learned the style from a great journalist, my father, John Culhane, who, after years of winning prizes as a hard-copy writer for the Chicago Daily News, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine and Reader's Digest, among so many other publications, became fascinated by the power of hypertext before there was an internet to put it in. My Dad wrote increasingly in a style that felt like "James Joyce's "stream of consciousness" meets the annotated bibliography". It all seemed to start when he gave a keynote speech to my high school rotary club called "Only Connect" with the message that we were all participants in "The Great Conversation" and all we had to do was connect the dots that people were leaving behind in their writings and discussions. In this way, he told us, humanity advances.

John Culhane was ahead of his time for many years until the world-wide web and hypertext suddenly became a user-friendly phenomenon. Now, as he writes his memoirs and puts them on the web, you see how you can unpack his densely imbricated thought streams and mine them for gems of insight to fit your own discoveries (singing "Hi Ho, Hi Ho" on your way back from the mine!)

Having come of age in the time of hypertext and web bots, I am deliberately writing in a more or less 18th - 19th century style (hybridized with the newly evolved style of John Culhane), a style packed with information which was necessary perhaps in an earlier age when printing was so expensive and labor-intensive, being hand-set type; the more you could pack in a small space the better.

I am, you see, deliberately writing for the search engines, not for the "everyman" or the "everyreader" , because my target audience are the windows explorers (and those "firefoxes" who are roaming the forests of information hunting down their word-prey) who are interested in helping construction a new "eu-topia". I am trying to find the time to hyperlink everything I write together so that a user's random walk through Google might serendipitously lead to a discovery useful FOR THEM, or at least a chance to lend their piece to the evolving puzzle of enlightenment in an age threatened by climate change, toxicity, radioactivity and disease.

This inchoate (and, I admit, sometimes "incoherent" :)) writing style is all about keywords and hyperlinks, and increasing the statistical likelihood that like-minds will stumble upon useful information contained here-in (I am also encouraged by re-reading the works of Buckminster Fuller, who, in a pre-hypertext age, also packed information into his works, using unusual concatenations and word play to trigger associations in the minds of readers sympathetic to his desire to engineer and better world through design revolutions. Only connect!)

The right key words might put a google searching world-changer in touch with a concept buried somewhere in my experiences that could lead to their next "Aha!" or "Eureka" moment. Since I don't believe that my own little inventions and innovations will be able to solve problems fast enough or well enough to get us through the nightmare of Global Warming and Social Upheaval on our collective horizon, I am making a bid for the power of collective intelligence to solve our global problems, and trying hard to play my tiny part. Perhaps something I say or write or do has a message for you. I don't know!

I do know, however, from following the work of my robotocist friends Nicolaus Correll, Jim Pugh and Chris Cianci at the EPFL in Switzerland, that Swarm Theory and investigations into the behavior of insects (which my Harvard professor E.O. Wilson got me excited about when I took his sociobiology class back in 1980!) are demonstrating the power of the "random walk" to produce efficient outcomes when coupled with the right search engine logic and the proper networks for interconnectivity.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And today, to finish my meandering story, was a kind of proof of the concept: A man from Guernsey, England who had spent time in Africa named Marcel Lenormand stumbled upon a post I wrote about our problems trying to build a solar tracker in Egypt and offered his help to find a solution. He then left a very encouraging comment on our latest post about our discoveries concerning do-it-yourself solar collectors using open plastic barrels and float valves. Clicking on his name in Google brought up a comment he had left for another organization, concerning his discovery of a revolutionary urban bio-gas solution created by the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute in India.

(Useful construction details found here).

What Marcel could never have known is that Solar CITIES has been in deep conversation with the Zabaleen garbage community in the ghettos of Cairo, searching for ways to turn the city's organic waste into biogas, and assessing the potential for an urban bio-gas revolution. We had been looking at rural solutions and attending conferences on biogas, but nobody had come up with a system appropriate for the densely crowded urban situation. And yet, thanks to a random walk following Marcel's comment threads on the web, we found the very solution we are looking for!

(These pigs beneath Romani's house in the urban poor community of Manshiyat Nasser's Zabaleen Christians could provide the gas they need to produce heat for cooking and bathing and for generating electricity, like in the Mel Gibson /Tina Turner movie "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome")

And that is how collective intelligence and random walks can affect development, if we all, like responsible ants, leave the right trail of where we have been and the ground we have covered. In this way, we fulfill Abraham Lincoln's message: "If we could first know where we have been, and wither we are tending, we would better know what to do, and how to go about it."


Marcel said...

On the 27th November 2007, I received an email alert from Google Alerts to which I had requested results on blogs and web pages for the words "solar" and "cooking". There was only one entry on this day, it was for this Solar CITIES blog.

I had recently been in a quandary about how to develop some of the gadget and gizmos that I have been stirring together. "Do I keep my mouth shut about them, maybe look at patents in time?" or should I just be turning whatever I 'sellotape'™ together, back to the web - a place where I spend arguably far too much time 'researching', and where most of the technical knowledge for the things I am creating comes from?

My first read of Mr T.H. Culhane's blog - the post titled "Bicycle Parts and Vanity Mirrors" - challenged me to consider simply sharing whatever I put together for the common good. My fear would be that someone else steals the ideas and goes on to make a fortune from them. This I have to deal with (plus looking into Creative Commons Licences etc.)

So Mr Culhane (I don't yet know you're first name), I'm glad that my bread-crumb trail has lead you to ARTI and their biogas systems. It's something I'm very interested in but am just not getting time to work on.

On solar tracking...
I've seen some neat passive trackers, and also seen the clockwork designs. The mechanical ones strike me as being a bit awkward in that you have to reset them everyday.
I've been creating a tracker based on an economical micro-controller board called Arduino. It's a mini computer on a board the size of a playing card. My design uses Light Dependent Resistors and servos but is at present untested in sunlight - it being winter here now make it all the more difficult!

So, I do look forward to talking some more and wish you every success in your work.

God bless


T.H. Culhane said...

Dear Marcel and Karen,

Thank you for your generous and inspiring comments and offers of collaboration! My wife Sybille and I are also the kind of souls who get lifted to go "wherever God wants us next" and this certainly creates for interesting discussions about hermeneutics with our Muslim friends in Cairo. I am flying out in an hour to get back to Egypt from Germany so will keep this short, but this is my email (I'm finishing my Ph.D. through UCLA).

You will notice I will tend, if it is alright with you, to write more in the public forums (fora?) because of my belief that time is of the essence in getting "the great conversation" going that will lead to more "breadcrumb trails" that might benefit humanity. So I tend not to mind, but encourage, "eavesdropping" on conversations about things that might better the human condition!

That said, I well understand your concern about sharing ideas that could be "stolen" and "profited" off of by unscrupulous individuals (too many great ideas, for example, have been snatched up and patented by the oil concerns and locked away in drawers, defended by bevies of highly paid lawyers, released only when it suits the robber baron agenda! :)

I tend to favor "open source" for that reason, but I think inventors should patent their ideas and designs so that the robber barons CANNOT steal them away.

One way, it occurs to me, for you to try out your ideas in the field without worrying about them being purloined would be, instead of publishing them on the web, simply come out to Cairo and start applying them!

I will be in Cairo from tomorrow until the 22nd, then Sybille and I will be back again after the Christmas holiday, from about January 5th or so for six to eight weeks. After that we will find other times to shuttle back and forth. Since you have said you have ideas you are dying to try, but don't have sunny weather to try them in, why not consider the slums of Cairo as your playground too? We have plenty of friends and institutions that would welcome making their roofspace available and would give you perfect feedback about how it was working. And we have a guest room, if you don't mind staying in Medieval Cairo (you can see our apartment in Google Earth -- the one with the solar panels on it -- by downloading the KMZ files posted here:

Hope to hear back from you, and, what is more, to actually see and work with you in Cairo!


T.H. (Thomas Henry) and Sybille Culhane

Marcel said...

Thanks Thomas,

In my ignorance as to the Zabaleen you mentioned I found info on Wikipedia and then the following videos on youTube...

Wow. Eyes opened.

I now see why you're so interested in the biogas stuff - particularly in what ARTI are doing!! Awesome.

I've been thinking about and automatic feeding device on a biogas digester like the ARTI systems. It would control temperature, water and feedstock whilst monitoring gas output and liquid effluent pH.

Safe journeys!
we're off to South Africa in a few days. Back in Jan. Will be contact-able though. Wondering if I will take my solar tracker prototype to fiddle with there!? hmm.

Tell me, how did you come to be where you are? and doing what you are doing??

God bless


Anonymous said...

I have written a blog post in which I quote heavily from some of your recent posts. I think everyone involved in this "great conversation" would enjoy reading it at

Marcel said...

Hi T.H. and Sybille

Our warmest Christmas greetings to you!

We're still with family in South Africa - enjoying the sunshine after days of rain! "Come to sunny Africa" they said! "Come in December when it's summer!"

The solar hot-water system at the house here performs very well - we measured the hot tap at 72°C on a sunny day. Unfortunately I've not been able to get up into the attic to see what's what.

I notice that your blog has fallen silent for the last while - I hope all is well with you and that it's just Christmas that has consumed your time.

hey ho, traveling inland tomorrow so early night required.

with best wishes


Marcel said...

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